Writer and broadcaster

I fear I’ll never be happy after my abused childhood. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

At the age of 41, I feel as if I will never be truly happy, despite having a good marriage and two fantastic children. I harbour fears that I am just not good enough and that my extended family do not love me.

My much older father was schizophrenic. He was abusive emotionally and sometimes physically. My younger sister and I were sworn to silence about it and were terrified that he would kill us if anyone found out.

My mother was in denial at the time. She arranged her working hours so she saw as little of him as possible. When events occurred, she always believed his version. She once left him for a week but didn’t take us with her.

In my teens, I felt protective towards her but since becoming a parent myself, I am angry. She continues to minimalise and trivialise things that happened. For example, my father (who died when I was 23) once tried to strangle me after getting angry because he felt I had not cleaned the floor properly. He denied it and my mother did not know who to believe.

What has compounded my unhappiness is that we have to move frequently as my husband is in the army. We emigrated to Australia but, although my life is much better here, I still feel unhappy often.

My family do not keep in touch very often and when we went back to the UK for a funeral, my grandmother refused to let us stay with her because she said she had to put herself and her family first. She then lied to the rest of the family and said I had tried to force her to let us stay.

I worry that I sabotage any chance of being happy with my black thoughts and that it affects my children. As my husband is away a lot, they are sometimes in my sole care for months on end. They are happy children but I worry that they will develop mental health issues later in life because of me. How can I pull myself out of this? Already 41 years have gone and I feel my life is nearly over.

What you have been through is traumatic and awful. Abused by your father, not parented properly by either parent, sworn to secrecy about what was going on at home. Yes, your father was mentally ill and therefore not in control of much of what he did, but nobody else protected you and they should have. I’m sorry. What a tough environment to grow up in. No wonder your grandmother’s comment of putting “her family first” hurt so much. No one did that for you.

I spoke to Dr Jim Bolton, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (rcpsych.ac.uk), who works with people with schizophrenia. I wanted to try to understand what it would be like to grow up in a household where a parent had this illness. He explains that (talking generally and not about your specific case) schizophrenia “can profoundly affect the way someone thinks, behaves and feels. At times they may appear flat in their mood and may have trouble reading other people’s feelings. All of that makes it much harder to be a parent.”

Dr Bolton explains: “A key part of growing up is learning to deal with difficulties in life so we can manage our own difficult feelings. We learn this through parenting. The hope is that, as we grow up, we develop our own emotional toolkit.”

You have never been shown how to manage your emotions in a healthy way, yet you have a “good marriage and two fantastic children”.

When children grow up with an abusive parent (mentally ill or not), they quickly learn to pick up on non-verbal cues. This makes them highly sensitive, which can be an asset but sometimes tips into hyper-sensitivity, which is less healthy. It can also stop you confronting situations or pushing past (what may or may not be) the first rejection from family/friends.

Who do you turn to for emotional support? Friends? Even friends far away on email/via the phone? If we don’t have good family support, it’s these people who anchor us and can give us confidence. I get many letters from parents who are scared of screwing up their children because of the way they were brought up themselves. The consensus from mental-health professionals is that recognising this risk helps to protect against it.

You would benefit enormously from talking therapy (links below). It’s not too late. You can learn to manage your feelings, make sense of your past, build an “emotional toolkit” for the future and be happier. It’s not unusual, by the way, for issues with the way we were parented to come to the fore when we ourselves become parents.

To find a therapist in Australia or the UK: http://www.psychology.org.au; pacfa-org-au.cloud.hosting-toolkit.net/; rcpsych.ac.uk/expertadvice/problems


This article first appeared on 29 August 2014 in The Guardian.